Paying Attention

Let’s be smart about this.

I am all for intuition, as a writer. But the other day, I had a moment where my subconscious writing process made a leap to my consciousness, and that’s when one can all of a sudden share that process. We’ll call it a teachable moment. Whereas before what I was doing was personal and private, it was now something I could share. And here is what I have to share:

As a writer, you should be thinking about all those little things that say so much about a character. Let’s face it: no two characters should say or do anything exactly the same way. Conversely, the character should inform every decision the writer makes about what the character does, says, or even the description of them and their environment.

Like when I was tapping away at The Night of One Hundred Thieves and almost wrote, “He thought that it might be better to come out here, in the hallway east of The Great Room, and begin again with a nearby, sliding bookcase.” When I realized that my character is haughty and self-absorbed, so the sentence had to be, “It would be better to come out here, in the hallway east of The Great Room, and begin again with a nearby, sliding bookcase.” Sound trivial? It is so not. It is all the little turns of phrases that will build a character in the mind of your reader, just as it will make your writing sound more original and authentic. A good reader can sniff out a phony, will spot your inconsistencies.

Keep asking yourself, “Would [my character] do/say/think/perceive that?” Nikeas would never muse on the possible choices and their various pros and cons. He would pick one and assert its superiority, to the death. Therefore, for Nikeas, “It would be better to come out here,” while other characters might think “…it might be better…” or even rush into the door without stopping or follow the draft of air out through the crack in the door, pushing against it with all their weight. As Nikeas’ author, I am bound to emphasize the dark of the corridors, how hot (and annoyed) he is, and what small memories he has of the place. He emerges and is immediately caught by the one person who has the power to throw a wrench in his gears: a plot point which is not the only thing in the scene informing us of the story or of Nikeas. His excuse of “I am on my way to the library” is just as important as anything else I might casually point out about him, and it has to be truly his.

Now, for some more writing advice from my immensely smart writing group:

  • J. K. Rowling has this wonderful habit of re-describing people, sometimes with just a small phrase. We never forget that Harry has green eyes and unruly dark hair. Why do I love this? Readers are often forgetful, and it helps to recall their imagination to the physical description that you gave of them so they can recall (and solidify) the mental image they have created, of them. This helps with all sorts of other memories, as well.
  • Writers often (and perhaps should) have an idea of tons of character, setting, and plot details that have really no business being in the book. The second half of that sentence is my point; don’t include what you don’t need to include. Knowing all those other things, in secret, will add to the consistency and the authenticity of the book (we hope), but the reader does not need to know the half of it.
  • Characters introduced early in a book receive more natural sympathy. I totally just made up this piece of advice, but I truly believe in it. Of course, as the author you can work against this and make a character really awful, but all I’m saying is, if you want to play up the connection between a character and a reader, introduce them early. And don’t kill off or make early characters disappear, unless you want to mess with that reader-author trust (like on purpose). When characters are introduced first, the reader trusts that 1) these characters are important and 2) they should grow increasingly suspicious of characters that are later introduced in opposition to these “first” characters. Even if you thought the later guy was the hero.
  • And my favorite, so far: When arguing the line between including oft-used plot turns and character types in writing and wanting to be original, the Great Whodini piped up with this one: “It is no longer a story thing; it is a human thing.”

It is a human thing, indeed.

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